From wheel pose and back bends to handstands and shoulder stands, many advanced yoga asanas are designed to improve flexibility and utilize the length and stretch in the muscles. For many people, those are the poses that present the greatest challenge, as they require more extensive preparation and skill. If you find that flexibility is your weak point in yoga, here are some easy tips to help make your muscles longer and leaner.
Make a Simple Stretch Routine
Make a list of the tightest areas of your body, especially the places that feel strained during yoga. Dedicate time out of class to focus on stretching these specific trouble spots. Write down all the stretches you need and put the list somewhere obvious, like the refrigerator or next to the television. This way, you'll see it often and be reminded to stretch—the most important part of flexibility training is consistency.
The butterfly stretch is a good way to gently loosen your hips. The more flexible this area becomes, the easier it will be to get into poses like Lotus and King Pigeon.
To loosen up tight shoulders, begin by hugging yourself while in a seated or standing position. Then slowly curl forward, rolling down your spine vertebra by vertebra. This will make it easier to manage poses like Rabbit and Camel, both of which require a loose spine.
Poses like Monkey and King Pigeon require loose and limber legs. Unwind tight hamstrings beforehand by sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, spine upright. Then, reach your hands toward your toes. Grab your legs/feet (as far down as you can) and pull your upper body to your legs. The goal is to eventually have your chest lying on your knees. This stretch will give you lax and lean hamstrings and allow you to get into Monkey pose with ease.
Few poses require and focus on neck flexibility, but having a loose and limber neck will help you relax and really feel the benefits of all aspects of yoga. To stretch out your neck after a long day at the computer, sit up nice and tall with your spine straight and lifted. Then, drop your chin down, curling your neck such that your chin comes down to your collarbone. Hold this and breathe.
Next, slowly roll your neck clockwise, keeping your chin tucked down toward your collarbone as much as possible. Take as much time and stretch as you need. Then reverse the circle. This will loosen up your neck and make poses like Fish and Wheel less strenuous on your cervical vertebrae.
Cut the Caffeine
In order for the muscles to function at their best (and be the most pliable), they have to be well hydrated. While caffeine can be a great pick-me-up at work or school, it also dehydrates the body and has actually been shown to make muscles weaker.
If you have to have caffeine (or alcohol, for that matter), remember that for every eight ounces you drink, you should add 16 ounces of water to the daily recommended intake of 64 ounces. One easy way to increase the amount you drink is to start carrying around a 32 oz. thermos of water. By having it with you at all times, you'll be encouraged to take in more water, which will compensate for the caffeine and properly hydrate your muscles. This, in turn, will make your muscles healthier and stronger.
Recent studies have shown that people drink more than twice as much water when provided with a straw as opposed to sipping sans-gadget. So, if you're having trouble getting yourself to stay hydrated, try using a thermos with a straw attached. Still struggling? Add a lemon slice or other small piece of fruit to add some much needed flavor to your water.
Feel the Heat
While you can technically stretch anywhere at any time (if there is room, of course), it's best to do so in a warm environment: Try turning on the heater at home; or stretch in a patch of sunlight. The warm temperature will loosen up your muscles, making it easier to achieve greater flexibility while also reducing the risk of injury brought on by tight, cold muscles.
Breathe Through the Muscles
Breath is both mentally and physically important in yoga, and the same practice should apply to any outside stretching you do.
Even and sustained breathing oxygenates the muscles. The inhale introduces new oxygen, while the exhale gets rid of any tension and old air you've been holding in.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
When you stretch, the inhale and exhale should be evenly paced: Try six counts for each, adjusting it if you find yourself needing more or less breath.
By pacing your breath, you'll be more able to feel the stretch without the pain from deoxygenated muscles. Some discomfort is normal when stretching, especially with tight areas, but you should never ignore pain. Stop, breathe, and gently pull out of a stretch if you feel a sudden onset of pain.
Make it Even
People usually prefer to stretch the dominant side of their body more than their weaker side, but this encourages an imbalance in both flexibility and in the body as a whole.
Instead, make sure you stretch evenly on both sides. Or, if one side is significantly less flexible, try stretching it twice: work it once, switch to your dominate side, then stretch it again. Only repeat this exaggerated stretch ratio for as long as there is a great degree of difference in flexibility (or else your weak side will become your overly dominant side). Return to an even routine as soon as the sides feel the same.
Don't Give up!
Despite how difficult the high flexibility poses may look, they can become easier. Stretch daily, stay hydrated, and work hard. You may be surprised at what you can do!